Saturday, 17 November 2012

fine birding on the suburban coast

Like all good days, this one began with a glorious lie-in, and I lazily dragged myself out of the house at about 9.00. My first port of call was the lovely SNOW BUNTING, once again showing brilliantly along Seaford seafront for myself, Peter Wilson, and several inquisitive passers-by, who I'm glad to say had great views without even needing any optics. Once we explained to people what the bird was they were also a lot more concerned to not flush it, which made for a far less stressful viewing! Bringing a tripod meant I also got considerably better photographs today than I had managed on Friday.

showing off the streaky mantle, reddish tertials, pale brownish nape, white wing flash

perched on the sea wall

just generally being too cute!

While watching our proud plectrophenax, I also picked up two Brent Geese passing high and to the east about 100 yards offshore- I used to think they were only to be seen moving along the coast on migration, but it does seem a few wandering birds move around East Sussex through most of the winter! After about 20 minutes of pure joy with my new best friend, I carried on west along the coast, checking Newhaven as I went.

it was generally very quiet- there was the regular winter flock of 200 Greenfinch, in which I tried and failed to string something rarer (I did briefly see a bull-necked, brownish looking bird with what looked like a short yellow beak, I think this was probably me just trying to string an odd view of a juvenile Greenfinch into a Twite though!). There were also plenty of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits, but not a lot else. Not even a Ringed Plover or a Stonechat was noted! The Mill Creek held only the resident Redshanks and Little Egrets, alongside the two Little Grebes that have taken up winter residence at the port-end of Mill Creek, I first noted these birds on the train on Monday and have seen them twice since; quite remarkably, my first ever for Newhaven Tide Mills! Now they're here they'll probably stay the whole winter. It does leave the question, why are they here now and not before? My best guess is that these two are part of the small number that winter along the River Ouse, often being seen between Southease and Pidinghoe in the winter months, and decided to wander a bit further downstream for the winter. Alternatively, may they have wandered from the more substantial population about four miles further east, in the Cuckmere? I suspect the latter is more likely but who really knows? anyway, Newhaven wasn't quite as dead as I've described, a female Wigeon flew over my head from on the Mill Creek, before heading NE towards Arlington and the upper Cuckmere, and there were also several flocks, amounting to about 200 more Wigeon, that flew south to roost offshore of Newhaven. One of my latest ever migrant Siskins also flew over, heading east.
Little Egret fishing in Mill Creek

Walking through the port at Newhaven, I noticed quite a lot of gulls- in one group of seven Herring Gulls on a factory roof was one bird with a noticeably darker mantle than the surrounding birds- I tried to set up the camera to get a photo but they all took off, the dark mantled bird flying right over my head, and showing a lot of white in the primaries, including an extensive white tip to p10- a nice clear-cut Argentatus Herring Gull. You may wonder why I was walking through Newhaven port, and it certainly wasn't for the scenery! But I decided to have a walk around Peacehaven today as well, and this was the quickest way to get to a bus-stop. 

Not a lot was there to see on most of Peacehaven Undercliff, but I did eventually find my target bird, a WATER PIPIT. Barny Worsfold reported a probable around here about a week ago which had a very convincing description, so I've wanted to check it out for a while, and was delighted to find one! I noted the following on the bird;

  • white outer-tail feathers, the most diagnostic feature
  • a clear, whiteish double-wing bar
  • a pale, orangey lower mandible
  • the upperparts were a greyish, neutral brown in colour, lacking the stronger olivey tones of a Rock Pipit
  • the underparts where a lot paler, with a slight yellowish tinge, but generally a lot clearer
  • streaking on the breast ended quite abruptly about halfway down the breast, and there wasn't the same olivey-tinge to the flanks shown by Rock Pipit
  • the streaks were slightly finer and cleaner looking, lacking the dirty, suffused look of Rock Pipit. 
  • the call was, to my ears, slightly lower-pitched, and more pleasing to the ears, than Rock- and though I've yet to find any literature that supports this it is something I've noticed on the other two local Water Pipits I've found
  • In stance, it was quite upright and wagtail-like, frequently pumping it's tail to reinforce the expression. it held it's head higher than the Rock Pipits I normally see, which generally have a more 'slanted' posture, you could run a line from head to tail running in an almost 45 degree angle on a Rock Pipit in typical posture I find, whereas it would be more like 60 degrees on a Water Pip. 
I was also quite lucky to get some decent photos of the bird, which may hopefully come in useful for a description

It wasn't as pale underneath as some very 'classic' birds I've seen, but I'm fairly happy with said birds ID. It was on the area of undercliff immediately below Malinee Avenue, Peacehaven, while I think Barny reported a bird slightly further west, at Portobello Sewage Farm. Is it the same bird wandering, or a different one? I think this bird is quite easy to pick out, due to the mass of downy feathering on the left side of the breast, where it looks like some feathers have been pulled out (I noticed it tussling with Rock Pipits quite a lot). 

Heading to the bus stop at Peacehaven, I got quite a surprise when five SWALLOWS flew over heading East! They didn't hang around long, hardly surprising, as they must be in quite a hurry to leave by now! I had recently seen y latest every Swallows at Pagham, on the 11th, and this was pushing the dates back even further! To see five was remarkable as well, and it does give me hope that a few of these extreme straggling summer migrants might make it back ok. 

On getting the bus, I met up with Jake at Brighton Marina, which gave some great birding! Along the east arm, a delightful and fairly confiding juvenile Common Scoter was swimming about among boats, probably enjoying the easy life of a placid water with probably a lot of shellfish on the bottom! A Guillemot was offshore, and on the rocks of the west arm we could distantly see a Mute Swan and a few PURPLE SANDPIPER, a year-bird for me and the main reason for coming to the Marina, I have missed on these beauties since my last sighting in January 2011! We opted to trek accross the marina to the West Arm, and got a remarkable surprise in two Shag fishing in the channel just opposite the West Quay! They were so close they were attracting quite a spectacle from the passers-by, something I have never noticed occurring where Phalcrocorax are concerned before at all! But when you're that close, the up-ending dives are quite a spectacle, and certainly splash loud enough to attract a curious crowd- who were probably enjoying the antics of one poor juvenile who hasn't quite mastered fishing yet! He attempted to swallow A Flatfish that was almost larger than him, and ended up giving up on most of his hard-earned prey, which the entrepeneuring gulls instead stole away. 

It was a truly fantastic experience, the frantic energy of this inexperienced juvenile, combined with his gusto for catching fish and disappointing failures to engulf them, made for gripping but also slightly saddening viewing. There is something cute, endearing and wryly affectionate about a Shag, being far skinnier and more elegant than his common cousin. The up-ending dive is also rather spectacular from such a close range, and we were literally so close that, when he resurfaced, you could hear the sound of water being forced out of nostrils! It was perhaps my favourite point of the day, even including the magnificent views of Purplie we managed once we pulled ourselves away from them! There were 8 Purple Sandpiper among 20+ Turnstones on the rocks on the marina side of the east arm- alongside the very out of place Mute Swan sitting on the beach! They seem to be quite a coastal species in the Solent and can often be seen paddling aimlessly past the beaches between Christchurch and Keyhaven among pedalo-lookalikes, but this probably the first time I've seen a coastal Mute in Sussex! 
juvy Scoter, enjoying the placidity of a Marina

Great Black-back, pirate of the unfortunate Shag!

diving Shag!

Phalcrocorax Aristotelis

Purple Sandpipers- no zoom

the creme de la creme of Sandpipers!

"I have no idea what I'm doing"

1 comment:

  1. I have quite often found Mute Swans either in Brighton marina or paddling around on the sea between the pier and marina. In fact there was a nest on a raft between the undercliff walk and the housing development; don't know whether it was successful or not however. The Psands are my fav too though and glad their numbers are building up again.